Hell, Purgatory and Paradise is a meditation on Gale Fulton Ross’ journey as an artist inspired by summers spent in Italy and Dante’s Divine Comedy, with Sojourner Truth, Frida Kahlo and Aunt Jemima as her guides.
“Aunt Jemima represents hell and purgatory,” Fulton Ross explained in an interview. “She gets me through hell. She can’t reach paradise. She’s a figure of the imagination of the white illustrator. She never really existed. To most black women, she is a disparaging figure and has been for a hundred years.”
Why salvage a white-authored marketing concept drawn from a minstrel stereotype?
“She’s the first black model,” Fulton Ross responded with uncharacteristic brevity.
Ross is an artist with a fine sense of irony deployed in the service of a widely embracing humanism and as a shield against the ravages of commercialism.
The exhibit has been displayed in her hometown of Sarasota and at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, where it ran from January through May 2011.
The exhibit, which drew 12,000 visitors, included 37 pieces, a video and an installation called “the burden wall” where visitors could leave their reflections. Eight thousand Post-It notes memorialize their sentiments.
“They were very honest, very poignant, emotional,” Fulton Ross said.
“Some young women wrote, ‘I will never be abused again. Thank you.’ Older people wrote, ‘Life is a journey. We got the message.’ “Some of those Post-Its clarify, make credible my own journey because other people affirm the same journey,” she added.
Through Marian Logan, a New York socialite and civil rights activist, Fulton Ross met many prominent people, including Whitney Young, Vernon Jordan, Adam Clayton Powell and Coretta Scott King. Logan commissioned her to paint a portrait of Duke Ellington and invited her to establish a studio on the first floor of her townhouse on West 88th Street.
“Ellington was a lady’s man,” Fulton Ross recalled, “and although I was young he was charming as hell.”
She also painted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who she recalls requesting that she not paint his hands because he bit his nails.
Fulton Ross’ work combines the figurative and abstract, while challenging viewers to grapple with rich color, dense allegory, mystery and ambiguity.
That dimension of her work is not so quickly grasped by the critics, auctioneers and curators who broker artists’ success.
“This is my artistic journey, where I’m trying to explain how I feel as a mid-career artist,” the 65-year-old Fulton Ross said of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. “I feel invisible in the very world where I need to be visible — the art world.”
While quick to clarify that her critique of the art world is not about race, Fulton Ross said the industry that brokers art sales tends to flatten the variety of experience.
“I wasn’t in this for the money,” Fulton Ross said. “Once I realized I was not in this for the fame, I did not want to squander what I was given by the universe. That is the ability to draw. Yes, I do need to make a living, and I do make a living.
“I am always happy,” she continued. “Every day is different. Even when I’m broke and I don’t know how I’m going to pay my rent, I’m happy. I’m going to be a grandmother in July. All is good. On my street, in my family and in community I’m recognized.”
Fulton Ross credits Alma Adams, the founder and curator of African American Atelier who is also a North Carolina state representative, with promoting her career. Adams is also professor of art at Bennett College.
“I’m on my way to Bennett College,” Fulton Ross said. “I love it.
I like the African American Atelier. I have reached the success that I want.”
Hell, Purgatory and Paradise opens with a reception of artist Gale Fulton Ross at the African American Atelier, located at 200 N. Davie St. in Greensboro, on March 18 at 3 p.m. Fulton Ross will also discuss the exhibit at Steele Hall Art Gallery on the campus of Bennett College on March 19 at 6:30 p.m.